The NWSL announced a new framework for its 2024 schedule on Thursday, which includes a revised plan for the Challenge Cup.

The tournament is now just a single match between the reigning NWSL champions and shield winners. This year, that match will be between Gotham FC and the San Diego Wave, and will take place on March 15 on Amazon Prime as a prelude to the regular season kickoff on March 16.

“The 2024 season marks the start of an exciting new chapter for the NWSL and one that will set the tone for the future of our sport in the U.S. and globally,” NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman said in a release. “Women’s soccer shined on an international stage in 2023 and as attendance, viewership and investment figures continue to explode, our league has never been better positioned to capitalize on the momentum the game is experiencing.

“Underscored by the addition of our 13th and 14th franchises, an enhanced match calendar and, critically, groundbreaking media rights agreements that will ensure our games are readily accessible to more fans than ever before, the 2024 campaign represents a new era for the NWSL as we continue our efforts to deliver the best product in professional soccer.”

A total of 190 matches will be played, with 118 of them airing on national platforms thanks to the league’s new media rights deal.

The regular season will feature 182 matches and take place over 25 weeks. According to the league, “the schedule has been formatted to avoid staging NWSL matches during FIFA windows and maintain flexibility for the league’s top players as they compete with both club and country.”

There will also be a CBA-mandated league break from July 8 to 14, while the league will break from regular season play from July 15 to August 18 during the Olympics.

During this time, the league will organize a tournament featuring international participants and all 14 NWSL clubs, the league announced, with more details about the competition set to follow.

The playoffs have also been expanded, with eight clubs set to qualify for the 2024 NWSL playoffs. It will now consists of four quarterfinal matches, with byes to the semifinals having been eliminated as a result.

The league’s full 2024 schedule will be released at a later date.

Sam Mewis and Lynn Williams expressed their confusion over the NWSL’s reported decision to cancel its Challenge Cup tournament on the latest episode of their “Snacks” podcast.

The Challenge Cup started in 2020 as a replacement for the regular season during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. It continued in 2021 and 2022 as a preseason tournament, then in 2023 it ran concurrently with the regular season. But the NWSL plans to abandon the tournament, The Equalizer reported in August.

While NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman denied that any final decision had been made ahead of the 2023 Challenge Cup final, the future of the tournament remains a question mark. According to The Equalizer’s report, the league plans to host a match between the NWSL Shield and the NWSL Championship winners instead.

Yet for Mewis, the Challenge Cup finally had found its rhythm in 2023, with matches taking place midweek and during the month-long World Cup break. Mewis is a midfielder for the U.S. women’s national team and the Kansas City Current, but she has been sidelined with a knee injury for the last two seasons.

“I think players were really on board with the Challenge Cup this year, not only because of the prize money, but also because that concentration of games came during the World Cup when there were a lot of players missing from the league,” Mewis said. “So I feel like it kind of lent itself perfectly to the season’s ebbs and flows. And next year would have been another great opportunity to do that during the Olympics. So I am curious about why it’s leaving, just as I think people were really starting to come around to it.”

Challenge Cup partner UKG committed record prize money this year: $1 million total. Williams also pointed out the sudden rise of the tournament, which would make its absence all the more obvious.

“It just felt like it went so high so quickly, and then all of a sudden, it’s over,” she said. “Because even this year, there was so much talk around it because the prize money was a million dollars.”

While there were still challenges with the tournament, which had to work around regular season games in the first three months of the season, it helped players stay sharp during the long World Cup break, Williams pointed out.

“I think it also allowed players that wouldn’t necessarily get time in the regular season to show what they could do in this Challenge Cup,” she said. “And I think that on some teams, those players are now starting even though the World Cup players are back. So, I would also love to know the reasoning behind that. Is something else going to replace it or, like, what’s the deal there?”

After the final whistle blew in North Carolina’s 2-0 Challenge Cup final victory over Racing Louisville on Saturday, the collective energy held both jubilation and relief. The Challenge Cup is a recent staple of the NWSL calendar, an in-season competition that has uplifted and strained the boundaries of what a domestic competition can look like in the U.S.

With changes to the Challenge Cup possibly on the horizon in 2024, let’s take a look at what the 2023 competition meant not just for its winner, but also the NWSL as a whole.

North Carolina is going to be just fine

With record prize money on the line, sometimes the main takeaway from a Cup competition begins and ends with the winner. This year, the Courage took the crown, adding a second-straight Challenge Cup title to their long list of NWSL championship wins and earning a payout from the $1 million prize pool. The win can serve as a galvanizing force for a talented squad firmly in the mix for a playoff spot, currently in third place in the regular season standings.

The Courage’s past success rightfully looms large over everything the current team does. What head coach Sean Nahas has managed to accomplish in a relatively short amount of time is to mold a group that plays with the same core, on-field values as the titans of 2017-19, while letting his current roster be themselves.

Brazil superstar Kerolin was her typical excellent self on Saturday, but the young players around her are the foundation of what North Carolina hopes will turn into many trophies in the future. It’s no secret the Courage have lost an immense amount of talent through requested trades and free agency in recent years, but their acquisitions have quietly come together to form a balanced group ready to prove itself. Brianna Pinto’s game-winner in the team’s Challenge Cup semifinal gave the team a necessary boost, and 19-year-old midfielder Manaka Matsukubo enjoyed her star moment with a brilliant strike to seal the victory in the final and win MVP.

In 2022, the tolls of North Carolina’s Challenge Cup victory early in the regular season appeared to haunt them as they fell out of playoff contention. This year, it could be the force that propels them to new heights.

A change in format is probably necessary

There have been reports that 2023 was the final iteration of the Challenge Cup in its current format, and issues during the knockout rounds highlighted why the NWSL is likely rethinking the future of the competition. Originally created to replace a COVID-19 pandemic-disrupted regular season in 2020, and then to mitigate regular season risks in 2021, the Cup has been an awkward fit the last two years.

Managers across the league have bemoaned the strain on their limited squad depth when adding games to the schedule. Though a more balanced approach to mid-week games softened the blow in 2023, a number of clubs seemed to prioritize simple rotation over going far in the Challenge Cup. It’s hard to fault managers for favoring the prizes of the regular season, but those decisions did produce an element of viewership fatigue.

That fatigue extended to players themselves, as travel and TV issues pervaded what was supposed to be the crowning week for the Cup. A 12:30 ET broadcast slot on CBS strained the concept of the top seed hosting the final — OL Reign forward Bethany Balcer noted on social media that if the West Coast club had taken the top spot, they would have been forced to travel cross-country on short rest anyway. The Courage, who did end up hosting the final, then dealt with a short turnaround to drum up local support for an extra game put on the schedule at the last minute.

As fate would have it, the Challenge Cup never made it all the way through its network TV time slot, with a weather delay pushing the match to digital streaming services. The NWSL should realistically look for more programming than a one 22-game season, but as it negotiates new broadcasting deals, this competitive sacrifice at the hands of short-term TV goals would be better left in the past.

The Challenge Cup also has its uses

Despite lingering logistical problems, the Challenge Cup did showcase its value during a major tournament year. The NWSL took just two match weekends off during the World Cup, but the Cup allowed them to avoid regular season matches from July 10 to Aug. 17, meaning that international stars missed far fewer season games than in previous cycles.

The flexibility provided by the Challenge Cup has brought about one of the closest Shield and playoff races in history. Instead of teams being punished for losing their stars during the World Cup, they got to welcome those players back with the league table mostly intact. That approach preserves the integrity of the competition and keeps top players who don’t want to miss their national team camps or club games happy.

The Challenge Cup also provides an NWSL-sanctioned opportunity to win another trophy, which should be prioritized even if the format of the tournament changes in the future. Players often talk about domestic or regional competitions as a draw of playing in Europe, and the NWSL will need to continue to keep pace with their international counterparts. Opening a Cup up to lower-tier club teams in the U.S., or even expanding to other regions in the Western Hemisphere (particularly Liga MX Femenil), would help add prestige to trophy opportunities outside of the NWSL Shield and championship title.

The NWSL doesn’t have the ability to create a Champions League on its own: Concacaf would have to help make that a reality. But they can look to create competitive variety for fans to enjoy and cater to advantages elsewhere. Racing Louisville’s run to the Cup final is one that clubs should be trying to emulate, rather than shy away from.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

Manaka Matsukubo made history during the 2023 NWSL Challenge Cup – in more ways than one.

Matsukubo, 19, a midfielder for the North Carolina Courage, became the youngest player to start in a game in the tournament. And then, on Saturday, after the Courage’s 2-0 win over Racing Louisville in the final, she was named Challenge Cup MVP.

After the game, Matsukubo was asked through a translator how she felt. But instead of waiting for the translation, Matsukubo beamed and offered her answer: “I’m so happy.” Her teammates erupted in joy around her.

The midfielder scored in the 54th minute of the final, icing the win after Kerolin found the back of the net in the 28th minute.

Matsukubo scored on an assist from teammate Tess Boade, who broke through the line and sent a through ball to Manaka. Manaka one-timed the reception and chipped the ball into the top right corner of the net, becoming the youngest player ever to score in the Challenge Cup.

The Courage acquired Matsukubo on loan from Mynavi Sendai of the Japanese WE League for a fee. She had scored four goals and added an assist during the 2022-23 WE League season.

“We are very excited to add another young talent to the team. Manaka is one of the young up and coming talents in world football. A player with a simple approach to the game and ability to unlock opposition through the thirds,” Courage head coach Sean Nahas said in a press release announcing her acquisition.

Ahead of the 2023 Challenge Cup final, the NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman called the year of 2023 an “inflection point for women’s soccer” — and she discussed the ways in which the league is looking to capitalize on the moment.

Expansion plans for 2026

The NWSL plans to add two more teams for the 2026 season, Berman confirmed to reporters Friday. She first shared the timeline for the next round of expansion in May, and that remains the goal.

Boston has been tabbed as an expansion destination, the Wall Street Journal reported in January, though the NWSL has not confirmed its selection. Berman declined to comment Friday, only saying the league hopes to share more details “soon.”

The NWSL expanded to 12 teams in 2022, when California-based clubs Angel City FC and San Diego Wave FC joined the league. The newcomers proved wildly successful in their inaugural seasons, as Los Angeles-based Angel City averaged more than 19,000 fans per game and San Diego reached the playoff semifinals (and set the postseason attendance record to boot).

New media rights deals

The NWSL expects to announce its next broadcast deals during the 2023 postseason, Berman said. Increased viewership for the 2023 season — by 20% on CBS and by 50% on Paramount+ — is giving the league a boost during the negotiations, according to the commissioner.

“We’re very bullish and hopeful we will end up with deals that will make our fans super excited and will allow us to continue the growth of the league,” she said.

The league’s current broadcast rights deal expires at the end of the current season.

Record attendance marks

With four matches left in the regular season, the NWSL has set a new attendance record, surpassed the 1 million mark for 2023. The league also surpassed 1 million fans in 2022.

The record total of 1,060,978 includes the first 18 weeks of the regular season but not the Challenge Cup tournament. Across the league, 11 regular-season matches have seen more than 20,000 fans, compared to just four matches last season.

With an average of 20,194 fans per home match, the San Diego Wave are on pace to set an NWSL record. San Diego also will host the NWSL Championship at 32,000-seat Snapdragon Stadium.

“We expect the building to be sold out,” Berman said.

The North Carolina Courage will host Racing Louisville at 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday with the 2023 NWSL Challenge Cup title on the line. Catch all the action on CBS.

While this year could mark the end of the Challenge Cup tournament as we know it, the prize pool stands at a hefty $1 million — including $10,000 per player to the winning team.

Racing Louisville secured their spot in the championship match with a 1-0 win over OL Reign, while the Courage got a 1-0 win of their own over the Kansas City Current to make their second consecutive Challenge Cup final.

What to know about Racing Louisville

  • This is their first Challenge Cup final. The No. 4 seed heading into the semifinals, the club finished in second place in its group but snuck into the knockout stage.
  • Savannah DeMelo leads Challenge Cup scoring for Louisville with three goals and one assist in the tournament through just four Challenge Cup games played. The midfielder missed several group-stage matches while playing for the U.S. women’s national team at the 2023 World Cup.
  • Racing Louisville were without captain Jaelin Howell and defender Carson Pickett for Wednesday’s semifinal but still managed a win by capitalizing on a turnover in the 28th minute. Kirsten Davis scored the game’s lone goal. “She has been taking one step forward,” head coach Kim Björkegren said of the development of Davis. “She has better control over everything: the ball and the target play. She can keep the ball for us much stronger.”
  • Katie Lund has been outstanding in net throughout the Challenge Cup, recording three clean sheets, which is tied for the league lead in the tournament.
  • This will be Racing’s third cup final but first in an NWSL competition. The club won the first-ever Women’s Cup in 2021 before losing last year’s Women’s Cup final. “It’s been such a ride,” Lund said of the team’s journey. “We’ve been up and we’ve been down. But I truly believe this is the best team we’ve ever had. The belief is there. The support that we have is incredible. And we felt that tonight. So, just the energy around this club right now is really positive and we hope we can move that to Saturday.”

What to know about North Carolina

  • This is North Carolina’s second-straight Challenge Cup final appearance, with the Courage having won their first title in 2022. “I said to them after the game, it was a moment. It was a moment that we’ll remember,” said Courage head coach Sean Nahas following the team’s semifinal. “It was a true test of character for our group. We knew we had it in us.”
  • Brianna Pinto scored the game winner in the semifinal, which proved to be the game’s only goal, in the 96th minute. “I think we did a really great job re-setting our culture,” Pinto said of the team’s overhaul in the last year in the wake of the scandal involving former coach Paul Riley. “Everyone has bought into it.”
  • Kerolin was named the MVP of the 2022 final, a 2-1 victory over the Washington Spirit. She has been quiet in this year’s campaign but has generated four shots on goal through four matches, which is tied for second on the squad.
  • Brittany Ratcliffe leads the team with three goals through six games played. Haley Hopkins and Olivia Wingate have the most points, with two goals and two assists each.
  • The Courage will play host in this year’s Challenge Cup final. “For us to have the opportunity to win a trophy on Saturday is massive, especially at home and especially for this young group,” Nahas said. “It’s a moment that’s only going to help us grow and improve and believe in ourselves.”

One year ago, OL Reign forward Bethany Balcer put the NWSL on blast over Challenge Cup scheduling issues. One year later, she’s back at it.

The Seattle-based club once again has clinched the top seed heading into the tournament semifinals. But if OL Reign advance to the final, they would not be able to host, as the championship match is locked into a 12:30 p.m. ET start time on CBS — so 9:30 a.m. local time in Seattle.

Rather than force players into an early wake-up call, the NWSL instead would ask OL Reign to be the visiting team for the final, Balcer wrote Wednesday in her Instagram Story. OL Reign will host Racing Louisville at 10 p.m. ET Wednesday, then the winner will advance to face either the Kansas City Current or the North Carolina Courage in the championship.

“Screw CBS and put that game on YouTube for all I care,” Balcer wrote. “No wonder we struggle to get the exposure and views we want…because what the league is giving us is SHIT.”

As the outspoken 26-year-old star pointed out, such scheduling has been a recurring issue for the league. In the 2021 Challenge Cup, the Portland Thorns hosted the final at 10 a.m. local time. Then in the 2021 NWSL playoffs, the championship was scheduled for a 9 a.m. PT kickoff at Portland’s Providence Park, but the league moved the match to Lynn Family Stadium in Louisville after players voiced their discontent.

In the 2022 Challenge Cup, No. 1 seed OL Reign had to travel to the No. 4 seed Washington Spirit’s home stadium for the semifinal round due to scheduling conflicts at their own home field. And even if they had advanced to the final, the start time would have left them unable to host.

“It BLOWS my mind that we have had the Challenge Cup for three years and we still are making the same mistakes,” Balcer wrote Wednesday.

Perhaps due to these issues, the NWSL reportedly will not stage the Challenge Cup as a tournament in 2024.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results… well our league is looking pretty insane to me,” Balcer wrote. “Put the game on at 7 p.m. local time for whoever is the top seed. If that is too difficult, you aren’t in the right job and you don’t care about growing the women’s game.”


The NWSL Challenge Cup semifinals are almost here, with four teams set to face off on Wednesday for a spot in Saturday’s championship game.

This will reportedly be the last iteration of the Challenge Cup, with the NWSL planning to abandon the tournament in 2024, according to The Equalizer. Thus, Kansas City, North Carolina, OL Reign and Racing Louisville are all looking to win what could be the final Challenge Cup in NWSL history.

Semifinal #1: Kansas City Current vs. North Carolina Courage

Wednesday @ 8 p.m. ET (CBS Sports Network)

The Current and Courage are both going into their Challenge Cup semifinal matchup with some lumps. Kansas City is 1-1 in its last two games after a big 1-0 win over OL Reign on Aug. 18, while North Carolina has gone winless in its last four games. The Courage were on the verge of a win against Gotham FC on Saturday, before they squandered a two-goal lead late to draw 3-3.

In the Challenge Cup, North Carolina put on a clinic in back-to-back games in July — a 6-0 win over the Spirit and a 5-0 win over Orlando.

Still, recent history appears to favor Kansas City. The teams are tied 1-1 in their regular season series, with the Current taking the most recent game. Veteran forward Kristen Hamilton also came up big for the 2022 NWSL runners-up in their last Challenge Cup game, scoring a brace in a 3-0 win over Racing Louisville.

Prediction: Kansas City 2, North Carolina 1

Semifinal #2: OL Reign vs. Racing Louisville

Wednesday @ 10 p.m. ET (CBS Sports Network)

Racing Louisville is riding high heading into their semifinal match against OL Reign. They haven’t lost a game since a 3-0 Challenge Cup defeat to Kansas City on Aug. 5, and they haven’t lost an NWSL regular season game since June. On Saturday, they came from behind to defeat No. 2 Portland 2-1. With most of their players back from the World Cup, Racing Louisville could be a surprise contender in the Challenge Cup.

OL Reign, meanwhile, lost three in a row before beating the Orlando Pride on Saturday. After registering wins over San Diego and Portland in the Challenge Cup, they enter the knockout rounds as the No. 1 seed.

Each game between Louisville and OL Reign this season resulted in a 2-2 draw, so expect this to be an even matchup and a game that goes down to the wire.

Prediction: OL Reign 2, Racing Louisville 2 (LOU wins on penalties 4-3)

Championship: Racing Louisville vs. Kansas City

Saturday @ 12:30 p.m. ET (CBS)

Kansas City has the knockout-round pedigree, but Racing Louisville has the momentum and could ride it all the way to the Challenge Cup trophy. Louisville will lean on the USWNT’s Savannah DeMelo and Jaelin Howell to set the tone in the midfield and spur the attack in a hard-fought game.

Prediction: Racing Louisville 1, Kansas City 0

MVP pick: Savannah DeMelo

The 2023 NWSL Challenge Cup will conclude with the championship match Sept. 9. It might be the tournament’s final bow.

The NWSL plans to abandon the Challenge Cup as a tournament in 2024, according to a report in The Equalizer. The league instead will stage a showcase between the winners of this year’s NWSL Shield and NWSL Championship, per the report.

The tournament, which is played alongside the NWSL regular season, was started in 2020 after the pandemic wiped out the regular season before it even began. Now it might be on its way out.

The OL Reign will play Racing Louisville FC in one semifinal match, with the Kansas City Current against the North Carolina Courage in the other. Both games will be held on Sept. 6 on the CBS Sports Network. The winners of the tournament will claim $1 million in prize money to be split among the players.

The reported new one-off version of the Challenge Cup will mirror the format in other countries, where the previous season’s domestic cup winner plays the league champion.

The Houston Dash won the inaugural Challenge Cup, with the Portland Thorns winning in 2021 and the North Carolina Courage last year.

The group stage of the NWSL Challenge Cup is complete, and only four teams remain.

The two finalists will be determined Sept. 6, when the Kansas City Current play the North Carolina Courage and OL Reign face Racing Louisville in the semifinals.

Teams will ideally have their international players back from the World Cup for the Challenge Cup knockout rounds. The World Cup final takes place on Sunday, Aug. 20, two days after the NWSL regular season resumes and two and a half weeks before the Challenge Cup semifinals.

Here is a guide to the NWSL knockout games.

Kansas City Current vs. North Carolina Courage

Sept. 6 at 8 p.m. ET (CBS Sports Network)

Kansas City shut out Racing Louisville 3-0 in their final match in the group stage to clinch the Challenge Cup Central Division title for the second straight year, with a record of 4-1-1.

North Carolina, meanwhile, won the East Division with a 3-1-2 record despite falling to Gotham FC 2-0 in their final match of group play.

OL Reign vs. Racing Louisville FC

Sept. 6 at 10 p.m. ET (CBS Sports Network)

The Reign became the first team in tournament history to not allow a single goal in group play. The team went 4-0-2 in the group stage to win the West Division.

Louisville secured the most points (12) among second-place finishing teams in the group stage, finishing 4-2.

Challenge Cup Final

Sept. 9 at 12:30 p.m. ET (CBS)

The winners of each semifinal game will meet in the championship three days later. The Courage are the reigning Challenge Cup champions, while the other semifinalists have never before hoisted the trophy.